Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The fill-in-the-blank “poem” at the end of today’s philosophy for kids session in Ms. Mazaheri’s 4th grade class was “One way I could be nicer is…” but the way that A. filled it out was to say “if the other team would stop drinking HaterAde on us!”

I laughed and cringed at the same time at how exercised the students got over the game we played, a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma activity I call “The Red/Green Game.” The “point” of the game is to illustrate how, in some cases, the only way to “win” is to refrain from trying to beat the other side. Certain kinds of problems have this shape: if everyone behaves in a stark self-interested way, everyone will do worse than if everyone cooperated.

Usually, students get it after the third or fourth go-round in the game. In today’s class, though, the team that scored more points in the first couple rounds kept lording it over the other side; feelings got hurt, and cooperation became an impossibility.

I introduced the concept of “ad hominem;” lots of the kids picked up on it, but it didn’t stop them from committing them one after another.

Ms. M. was pretty relaxed about how agro the room got; she chalked it up to end-of-year emotions and said that as long as I was okay with the mood, it was fine with her; it would give the class a lot to talk about in days to come when everyone settled down.

It just goes to show you (that is, me) how unpredictable philosophy can be. Things didn’t turn out as expected, but they were fruitful nevertheless.

I felt a little bit like a favorite uncle: you know, the kind who gets the kids all wound up, and then gets while the getting is good.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Doing Philosophy

Sometimes we do exercises that explore philosophical content; other times, we try stuff to get a better sense of how philosophy is done.

In Ms. Barnes 4th grade class on Friday, we were all about the latter; I led the kids through two activities that I think did a pretty good job of encouraging them to engage in the practice of doing philosophy, and we even got to do a bit of philosophizing at the end.

The first exercise was just a simple word-association game. I make the point that, in philosophy, it’s important that we listen to each other and, by drawing upon the ideas of others, come up with new ideas of our own. So, we go around the room, student by student, doing word association. I time the class and we try to increase our speed with each successive iteration of the game.

The first time, E. started with the word “philosophy.” The next student, M., said “falafel.” When I asked her to explain the connection between those two words, she said that the sound of “philosophy” makes her think of the sound of “falafel.” Fair enough. The subsequent student, however, didn’t know what falafel was, so that slowed down the associations. Eventually, though, the class got back on track, and there was a stretch in the middle, where everyone was doing food items; that moved thing along with reasonable alacrity.

Afterwards, we reflected on what could be done to make us go faster; the general consensus was that too much thinking was going on; a person should just say the first thing that came into his or her head. When we tried that, things went faster for a bit, but then, some of the associations were so random that making connections was difficult and the process slowed down again.

The fourth and last time we played the game, I turned it into word disassociation; students had to say a word that had nothing at all to do with the previous one; this proved harder than they thought it would be. Having practiced making connections, now it was more difficult not to. We wondered together why this was so and it seemed like the listening that went on during that discussion had been enhanced by the exercise.

Next, we did the exercise called “blind painter,” where students work in pairs, with one student being the “eyes” and the other the “painter” to copy a drawing I do on the board. This is always a laugh riot especially the second time we do it, when I draw an almost unrecognizable Fred Flintstone on the board. Still, students had a lot of fun and seemed to get the point: the importance of listening actively and communicating clearly when doing philosophy.

We ended things with a brief discussion about whether some art is better than other art. Predictably, most students said that it was all just a matter of taste. I think I’ll poke at that belief next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fair or Equal?

When I brought out the bag of Starburst candies in Ms. Mazaheri’s fourth grade class today and asked the students what would be the fair way to pass them out, they pretty much all agreed that everyone should get the same amount.

M. said that I should give every kid 5 candies. I said that there weren’t enough in the bag for that. T. said that I should just go around giving every student one candy and keep going until they ran out. “But that means some of us won’t get the same amount,” complained A.

“Suppose I start with two each?” I proposed.

“Then, whatever’s left you can see if there’s enough to go around again,” said X.

So, as I was passing out the treats, I wondered aloud if there could ever be a time when it would be fair that people got different amounts. “Well, if you did good on a test or something,” said T.

“Or if you gave a good answer to one of your questions,” said M. eagerly.

I wanted them to think about whether or not fair always means equal, so I got four boys to volunteer to come up to the front of the room. “These gentlemen and going to make us lunch,” I said, which cracked up all the girls in the class. “But they all have different mad skills.” I then passed out little pieces of paper to each boy, each with a different expertise: one was the world’s best soup-maker, another the world’s best sandwich-maker, the third, the world’s best dishwasher (which, when he read it aloud evoked lots of laughter from the class); and the fourth was the world’s best dessert-maker.

After exploring why it was so funny that X. was the world’s best dishwasher, we talked about whether all the young men should do the same work in preparing our lunch and whether they all ought to be paid the same amount for doing so. What was great was when students distinguished between jobs that are fun and jobs that are hard; generally, they said that you ought to be paid more for a job that is hard, but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. (For that matter, one student added, a job can be easy and NOT fun, too.)

I was a little worried that the exercise might come off as pedantic, since I DID want the students to at least entertain the idea that what’s fair and what’s equal can be pulled apart, but since they arrived at that conclusion without my help—and since they generally agreed that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t—I thought things stayed reasonably philosophical.

We ended by going around the room having each student say what he or she was best at; (the answers included stuff like drawing, playing video games, and baby-sitting) and I asked students to reflect on how they might bring these different skills into play in the classroom.

As I was wrapping up, A. raised her hand and waived it around wildly. “One more question?” I asked, thrilled that she was still engaged with the lesson.

“Yeah,” she said, “can we have another Starburst?”

Seemed fair to me.

Friday, May 13, 2011


A couple of students presented their lesson on the philosophy of color in the philosophy for kids seminar at the UW yesterday. They read a book called The Great Blueness about a wizard who introduces color into a black and white world only to have it first turn into an all blue planet, then one that’s all yellow, then all red before finally learning to mix color and create the multi-hued universe in which we live; although the students were somewhat that the story would generate many questions, we did get into an interesting, albeit somewhat abbreviated discussion about the nature of color and whether or not you could have a name for a color you couldn’t see, or vice-versa.

I love how this group is pretty fearlessly diving into the challenge of leading their own philosophy lessons in the elementary school classrooms in which they’re volunteering; it makes our seminar discussions that much more vibrant and engaging. In general, they’re still getting used to balancing content delivery with authentic inquiry; it’s taken me decades to stop worrying so much about whether I’m teaching philosophy and embrace just doing it, whether we get around to clarifying, say, the scientifically-verifiable experience of color in our brains.

What matters most is taking on questions whose answers beguile us; in the end, I don’t think anyone minded that we didn’t get to where some might have hoped we would; more importantly; we had much to think and talk about along the way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The students in the University of Washington class in which I did a Philosophy for Children demonstration today were all pretty much half-asleep when I arrived. One girl was checking her cell phone messages; the rest of the class, seated in that unfortunate lecture hall configuration were basically just waiting to be bored by whatever I had to lecture them about.

I crossed them up, though, and began by asking them to introduce themselves and tell me what schools they were volunteering at (this being a class of students who all tutor in some local K-12 classrooms.) I then let them know—quite sincerely—how much I admire them for doing so; I think they were pretty surprised to discover that I wasn’t going to make my time with them all about me.

Eventually, I launched into my standard introductory philosophy for kids lesson, in which I interactively present a three-part argument for the conclusion that they are all philosophers. When we got to the part where they have to (get to) work together in groups, the room was lively and energized.

The students were having fun and, I think, learning something. We ended up having a vibrant discussion about personal identity in which nearly everyone participated.

Now, if only we could have gotten out of the lecture hall.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


In Ms. Mazaheri’s 4th grade class today, we wondered together about happiness. After an initial exercise to get students thinking about two important skills in doing philosophy—listening actively and communicating clearly—I asked whether doing the exercise made them happy.

A. said that because the exercise was difficult and confusing that it didn’t make her happy. J. said that for him, because the exercise was challenging, and he overcame that challenge, it did make him happy.

“So what is happiness?” I wondered aloud. “Is it a thing?” J. said that it WAS a thing—a thing you feel. “So, is happiness an emotion?” I asked.

T. said that it was a feeling. So, what’s the difference between a feeling and an emotion? She elaborated: “a feeling is something you feel. An emotion is something that lasts longer. When I’m having fun, that’s a feeling. When I’m happy, that’s an emotion.”

I was fascinated by this distinction. “So what’s the difference between fun and happiness?” A. said that there wasn’t a difference. “Anytime you’re having fun, you’re happy,” she claimed.

X. didn’t buy that. “No way. In school, I can be happy, but if we’re doing something boring, that’s no fun.”

So, you can be happy, but not being having fun; can you be having fun and not be happy? A. had a great example: “My cousin failed in school; it was funny, but it made me unhappy for him.”

So, who’s happy now, I asked. Most of the kids raised their hands. How about fun? Who’s having fun? Almost all of them did.

Me, too.


Everybody is fascinated by his own pain, but hardly anyone has any real interest in anyone else’s.

That’s because, obviously, no one else can really “feel your pain,” as Bill Clinton used to put it. If they could, there would no doubt be a thriving market devoted to paying people to fee your pain for you; masochists might even pay for the privilege of feeling other peoples’ pains.

And who wouldn’t lay down big bucks for the privilege of feeling the pain of some famous person; Lindsay Lohan, for instance, could probably make a fortune selling off the icky way the inside of her nasal passages feel after a night of partying.

But when it comes to your average person’s pain, like the feeling of a hot knitting needle being jabbed into your back when your bend forward, who wants that? (Not I, that’s for sure, and I’m the one who would presumably have it for sale.)

What’s interesting is that what hurts most is the space between the ends. Urdhva Danurasana or Karnipidasana, not so bad; what’s agonizing is getting between the two. Hmmm.

This suggests to me that what’s really going on, as my second favorite doctor (my dearly-departed dad, Dr. Alvin P. Shapiro, MD, may he rest in peace is number one), Dr. John Sarno would surmise is something other than physical injury; he would contend, and I would tend to agree, that my mind is manifesting this tension in my body so as to distract me from something else altogether that for one reason or another, I’m preferring not to deal with.

I spend a lot of time trying to remind myself of this: I’m obviously not injured, I’m just hurting. All I’ve got to do convince myself to stop tensing up when I get to the place where I think I’m going to feel pain, and it will all go away.

Or, alternately, if I could hire Lindsay Lohan to feel it for me.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Same, but Different

I did another Philosophy for Children demonstration lesson in a fourth grade class today; this group, in contrast to Tuesdays, was somewhat less interested in telling stories about themselves and more willing to engage in what I’d tend to consider philosophy. They were particularly interested in wondering about what makes a person who he or she is, and in general, seemed to conclude that it was a combination of mind and body, although one kid maintained eloquently that it was neither, that what made a person who he or she is is the soul. Interestingly enough, when I pursued his definition of that term, he said “personality,” so his position may be a bit circular, something to explore in future classes to be sure.

One of the interesting learning moments for me was when I asked students to contrast their thought of something with their thought of the thought of it, an activity that I often do. The thing they were thinking of was a meatball, and so when I asked them to contrast the meatball with the thought of it, they took me to mean what the meatball is thinking. This led to an interesting discussion of whether meatballs can think and if they do think, what they’d be thinking. One girl suggested that a meatball’s main thought would be “Please don’t eat me.” Seems reasonable.

The prospect of doing essentially the same lesson that I’ve already done three times this week with three other groups of students was a bit off-putting; I was feeling like a kind of wind-up doll, but once I got into the classroom and began to appreciate how every single group of students is different every time you work with them, all was well. I was surprised and charmed by the kids’ responses time and again; shades of Heraclitus: you can never step in the same river twice.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


What is the best way to deal with pain in your yoga practice?

My strategy, generally, is to treat it like a piece of food in between my teeth: I keep poking at it, seeing if it’s still there. I continually push up against it, trying to make it go away, hoping it’s no longer going to be there when I do the same thing that made me wince last time.

Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe I ought to only go just as far as I can to not feel feel the hurt; maybe I ought to give my body a complete rest and just let myself heal. I dunno.

No doubt there are different kinds of pain, as well. If you’re really injured, then you probably ought not to keep messing with the injury. I’ve got a little rugburn on my upper back, for instance; it’s probably a good idea to refrain from rolling around in garbha pindasana until the scab is gone; on the other hand, I’m pretty sure the clenching in my lower back is just muscle tightening. It seems to me in this case, that I ought not to coddle myself; I should try to resume my regular range of motion as quickly as possible.

Pain is all in the head, isn’t it? So I want to show my body who’s boss here and convince it to stop hurting. Or maybe it’s the other way around: I want my body to show my mind it can just quit sending those pain signals to itself.

The other day, when I did philosophy with middle-school students, I asked them to wonder whether they’d be willing to have a surgical operation without anesthesia if they were given a pill beforehand that would immediately make them forget the pain after it was over. The class was pretty evenly split on the issue.

I am, too. I think I wouldn’t mind the pain I’m experiencing after every forward bend if I immediately forgot that I had; on the other hand, I’m pretty positive that it would be way better never to have the pain to remember in the first place.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Fourth graders sure are different than seventh graders—at least in today’s class at Muir Elementary School.

What they really wanted to do, more than anything else, was tell their stories; I kept trying to arc them towards the exploration of concepts, but everyone kept coming back to “this time when I did so-and-so or such-and-such.”

Still, we had a pretty good discussion and I do think some real philosophy was done.

Today was my first day back in Ms. Mazaheri’s class since I went to India; I began by asking the kids how they knew that it was me. “You still have the same glasses.” “Your hair is the same.” “Your voice sounds the same.” “You have the same name.” This led to a discussion about whether or not changing your name makes you a different person. We explored personal identity a bit and wondered together whether you’re still the same person in 4th grade as you were when you were a baby. Again, the name thing came up; a couple students wanted to maintain that as long as you had the same name, then you were the same person.

I segued then into a discussion of bravery; “some people said I was brave to go to India;” I said; “but what does that mean?” I asked the class to give me examples of time they felt brave. They gave answers like, “When I rode a roller coaster,” or “When I dove off a diving board,” or “When I jumped really high.”

We then took on the question of whether or not you have to be scared to be brave. I asked the kids to think about their examples and ask themselves whether they were scared in that instant. The class was sort of split; a bunch of the boys said they weren’t scared when they did something brave; most of the girls said that what made it brave was that they were scared, but did it anyway.

I read the Frog and Toad story “Shivers,” at this point, and that led us into wondering about whether something has to exist to be scary. Again, the class was sort of split; some students maintained that unless something really exists, it’s not frightening; others pointed out that you can be scared by movies, for instance, even though you know they aren’t really.

“Well then, what about ghosts?” I asked. “Can you be scared by ghosts even if they don’t exist?” Here’s where the need to share their stories rose to the fore: pretty much every kid had to give an example of his or her experience of a ghost. To a student, I think, they all were sure ghosts exist and had first-hand evidence to support their beliefs.

Afterwards, I urged them to think of alternate explanations for their ghost stories; a couple of kids said that maybe it was the wind, or a dog, or something else, but most still were convinced that ghosts do exist. We wondered together whether this is what made ghosts scary; even the students who said that they could be scared by something that doesn’t exist allowed that this made ghosts especially frightening.

I ended up with a fill-in the blank “poem.” Students wrote their ending to the line, “I feel brave when I…”

My favorite answer was “I feel brave when I walk away.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Middle School

I think my favorite age-group of students to do philosophy with is middle-schoolers.

There’s just something about those young people whose minds and bodies are busting out all over that leads to really lively and fascinating discussions. The kids are still young enough to be pretty willing to try out new ideas, but they’re also sophisticated enough to have surprising ways of looking at the world.

I also recall pretty clearly my sixth through eighth grade years which were, in many ways, the most influential in all my years of education; I’m sure, for instance, that my interest in philosophy stems from questions I asked—and usually didn’t get answered—at the time.

So I really enjoyed my couple of hours today with two different groups of sixth to eighth graders in the Alki program at Reeves Middle School in Olympia, WA. I took the bus down in a pouring rain this morning, thinking all the while, “Why am I doing this? I could be home, warm and dry.”

But as soon as I got to the school and the kids showed up after lunch and we started wondering together about what is philosophy and whether they themselves were philosophers, I was delighted I’d made the trek.

We pondered together what it means to think and to think about thinking. I asked the first group to think of the biggest thought they could think of. This led to a discussion about whether thoughts come in different sizes. One girl made an excellent distinction between the thing you’re thinking of and the thought that you’re thinking: “When I think of a star,” she said, “I’m thinking of something big; but that’s different than when I think of something big, like what I’m going to do with my life.”

Somebody mentioned that they “thought to themselves,” and then we started wondering whether it’s possible to think to someone else. Are all our thoughts though to ourselves?

In both classes, we segued into a thought experiment. In the first, we pondered the classic mind/body switch between two people; a consensus sort of emerged that personal identity is a mix between the mind and the body.

In the second, we talked about pain and where it is felt: is it in the head or in the body? I asked students to ask themselves which of these two they would choose: having a tooth removed with anesthesia for $1000 or having it removed for $5.00 if they were given a pill that would make them immediately forget the pain they experienced during the operation. They were pretty split and a couple even said that what they would prefer would be experience the pain AND remember it afterwards.

That’s the kind of answer you only get from middle-school students.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Mysore anymore.

So, what does one’s practice look like back here on this side of the rainbow?

First thing, you’re gonna hurt yourself when you insist on doing everything you once did. And that’s going to remind you, eventually, of what you were supposed to be remembering all along: this isn’t really a physical practice we’re engaged in, even though it often seems to start and end with the body.

Hard to believe: a person might not actually be able to devote him or herself with the same single-minded devotion to the inward journey while simultaneously being a caring and present member of the hometown community as he or she did back when the most complicated question of the day was whether to have the full lunchtime thali or just go a la carte.

So, the question once again, in another form, is: what form does devotion take when one is devoted to more than just the inwardly-focused devotion?

I believe, as do others, that you still put in the mat time, six days a week, even if how you’re spending that time isn’t as impressive to your ego as it was at other times.

It’s a gift, of course, to be forced by your lower back and/or knees and/or wrists and/or neck and/or wherever to examine yourself in a new light, even if—especially if—those new shadows aren’t as flattering to you as the ones cast by the Indian sun.

Unfortunately, we can’t choose which particular impermanence we’d prefer would stick around. If in, let’s say, three or four or (more typically six) weeks from now I’d like to not have my obterator internus muscle clench like a fist every time I do caturanga dandasana after a forward bend then I guess I’ve also got to be sanguine about the current state of affairs as a change from what used to be a mere couple months ago, right?